There’s a perception about security agencies that no other organization, anywhere in the world, has the ability to tap into the insecurities of susceptible populace to enhance its clout, influence and purview better than the law enforcement agencies. We witnessed the latest and perhaps the most staggering demonstration of this fact recently when a mind-blowing revelation exposed a discomforting reality that the FBI has been involved in hacking over 8,000 computers across 120 countries, yes you read it correctly, 120 countries. Any rational mind would think of this violation of legal geographic jurisdiction as a blatant breach of international surveillance laws and individual privacy on the internet. Earlier this year, reports began to surface regarding the FBI’s involvement in extensive online surveillance operations. The law enforcement agency, according to reports, used a complex malware program in an attempt to detect the location of over a hundred thousand users of child pornography sites.
There is no denying the fact that we live in tumultuous times, and that tech can be a blessing as well as an instrument for abuse, which calls for a greater check on unlawful and potentially harmful activities, especially when it comes to cyberspace. There are properly channels and laws for going about the task. What evoked the ire of the critics of unfettered online surveillance is the worrying fact that the FBI’s activities were in clear breach of internationally agreed upon laws outlining that no country should spy on the people of other countries without informing the relevant authorities first. But as it turned out, the FBI’s hacking operating and search investigations extended not only outside the US but beyond the planet Earth into the outer space, as much as it beggars belief. And all it took was a single warrant.
FBI’s Mass Hacking Jurisdictions And The Rule 41
Details about this largest hacking campaign by any law enforcement agency to data were exposed by the revelations made during the contentious Playpen case related to Child pornography. Back in 2015, the FBI caught and took hold of a dark web child pornography site. But what followed defies description, but as a writer it’s my duty to state the facts as they are. The FBI, instead of shutting down the website or take immediate action against the people link to it, ran the site from a government server for a total of 13 days. This time period offered the FBI ample time to design and launch a malware tool known as the Network Investigative Technique (NIT) that helps determine the physical location of anyone who visited the site or a certain thread on it. This malware also made it possible to get the real IP addresses of visitor to the site even when they were hidden behind the TOR mask.
All this was made possible by a single warrant issued by Magistrate Judge Theresa C. Buchanan in the Eastern District of Virginia. It is instructive to note that the judge held no authority to issue warrants for searches outside her own district let alone the kind of online searches the FBI ended up conducting. This blatant breach of law prompted some courts to dish out all available evidence regarding the malware’s use during the investigation. All in all, fourteen court decisions unanimously agreed that the warrants were issued contrary to what was prescribed by the law.
This incident is expected to force some changes as to the way the Rule 41, which governs the mechanism for issuing search warrants, is applied and implemented. The changes proposed in the recommendations will authorize magistrate judges issue warrants similar to the one in the Playpen investigation.
Widespread Discontent Over The Manner Of Investigation
There are no two ways about the heinous nature of the alleged crimes that the perpetrators in the Playpen case are bring accused of, in all honesty. Due to the seriousness of the crime under investigation, debate over how method and the manner of conducting investigations in this case was either muted or in some instances the concerns were brushed under the carpet. But the scope of investigation in the Playpen case opens the avenue for further expansion in the hacking capabilities of law enforcement during domestic and international investigations. All this leads to concerns about online user privacy.
Many reports that were made public following the investigations severely criticized the FBI over the manner in which it went about the whole investigation process. Lets say, in drug sting operations, cops pose as a drug dealers to nab buyers, similarly, the FBI ran a child pornography website to first find out the location of visitors and then apprehend them. However, it needs to be pointed out that unlike in the drug sting operations, the FBI was not just ‘posing’ or ‘acting’, it was actively involved in the distribution of grotesque content on the internet – which is a federal crime in itself.
It was unveiled during the subsequent expose, that during the period of 13 days when the site was under FBI control, over 100,000 people visited the site. accessed around 200 videos and 48,000 photos of victims, and all that is beside the content that was downloaded from the site. FBI’s bungling of the investigation went further; it even made the site more popular by making it faster and easily searchable. When the site was under FBI’s control, the site’s visitor count increased manifold, over 50,000 visitors per week visited the site, as opposed to 11,000 before it was ceased by the authorities.
Which ironically made the US government itself culpable of crimes it was entrusted to prevent in the first place by propagating the child abuse during those 13 days.
Several concerns pop up after this investigation. Sure the crime deserves widespread rebuke, and the people involved should be held to account. But there’s another concern that we should be mindful of moving forward. The method employed by the FBI during its investigation process with total disregard for international laws and boundaries should act as a grave warning for end-user’s online privacy, especially when it extends to the areas it shouldn’t be involved in. I would like to end this piece with a statement made by federal public defender Colin Fieman in a court hearing, “We have never, in our nation’s history as far as i can tell, seen a warrant so utterly sweeping.” Moreover, an official court transcript showed that the FBI also hacked a satellite provider.
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